Politicians, captains of industry and other leaders gathered on Thursday evening to listen to President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address.
Politicians, captains of industry and other leaders gathered on Thursday evening to listen to President Jacob Zuma’s second State of the Nation address.
DA leader Helen Zille sported a deep red ball gown while Inkatha Freedom Party president Mangosuthu Buthelezi wore an evening jacket with a hint of sparkle.
Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula stood out in her canary yellow outfit with matching head dress while the fashionista of Cabinet, Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, did not disappoint with her deep purple evening outfit.
To give extra pomp to the ceremony, Zuma arranged that he shared the day of his address with the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the release of former president Nelson Mandela.
Although the MPs and guests clapped enthusiastically as Zuma entered the chamber, there was none of the wild enthusiasm that accompanied his previous address in June last year.
Difficult time for Zuma
Zuma is addressing the nation at an unfortunate time, for the government and for himself. South Africa is not yet out of the woods after the first recession that the democratic government has had to deal with, and Zuma has spent two bruising weeks coming to terms with a public outcry after news of his love child and extramarital affair came to light.
Overseas guests included the former Zambian minister Kenneth Kaunda and the chairperson of the African Union commission, Jean Ping.
His nervousness only showed once, when Zuma lost his footing at the start of his address, starting with ‘You will remember”, instead of reading the text he had in front of him.
He took a quick pause, licked his lips and started again: ‘Honourable Speaker”.
In another slip of the tongue, he announced later that government would be partnering with Absa—the largest bank in South Africa—instead of the Development Bank of South Africa, which drew laughter from his audience.
But despite Zuma’s plans and promises, it was not a night to remember.
Little to offer
The minimal recovery in the economy meant he had very little to give—at least in the short term.
He promised South Africans better education, better roads, a better health service, less crime and more jobs, but warned these promises would only be fulfilled in a few years’ time.
He did not reflect much on the achievement of his government thus far, except for setting the record straight on his previous promise of job creation—which has been roundly criticised after about a million jobs were lost due to the recession.
‘The nation will recall that during the 2009 State of the Nation address, I announced that the Expanded Public Works Programme would create 500 000 work opportunities by December 2009. Let me reiterate that these are not jobs in the mainstream economy. These are job opportunities created to provide unemployed people with an income, work experience, and training opportunities. We are pleased to announce that by the end of December, we had created more than 480 000 public works job opportunities, which is 97% of the target we had set.”
But Zuma appeared to have learned his lesson about setting targets, and the few that he did announce in his address have delivery dates for 2014.
‘Economic indicators suggest we are now turning the corner. It is too soon, though, to be certain of the pace of recovery. Government will therefore not withdraw its support measures.”
He made promising remarks about plans for dealing with job losses, but couldn’t give details.
‘Our industrial policy action plan and our new focus on green jobs will build stronger and more labour absorbing industries.”
The pressing issue of job creation was dealt with by referring to current government interventions, which included the training layoff scheme and promising more labour intensive projects which means government still sees the expanded public works programme as its primary answer to mitigating the recession.
The only decisive intervention in job creation is a two-tier labour system, in which the government will use subsidies to encourage companies to hire young, inexperienced workers.
‘Proposals will be tabled to subsidise the cost of hiring younger workers, to encourage firms to take on inexperienced staff.”
The Mail & Guardian understands that the Treasury is due to elaborate on this job creation strategy, which will be targeted at specific sectors and provide employment for young people. A pilot project has been launched and is due to be expanded.
Cheaper calls, broadband
Zuma also promised cheaper telephone calls.
‘The South African public can look forward to an even further reduction of broadband, cellphone, landline and public phone rates. We will work to increase broadband speed and ensure a high standard of internet service, in line with international norms.”
With former president Nelson Mandela in attendance, Zuma drew heavily on the fact that his second State of the Nation address coincided with the 20th anniversary of the release of the former president. By invoking the sentiment, Zuma made up for an address that was big on sentiment but low on substance.
The president again committed his government to ensuring the performance of officials and ministers, who now will have to sign delivery agreements with Zuma.
‘This year, 2010, shall be a year of action. The defining feature of this administration will be that it knows where people live, understands their needs and responds faster.”
‘Faster, harder, smarter’
His business-like approach to government is echoed in his promise that ‘government must work faster, harder and smarter”—reminiscent of a corporate slogan.
The government plans to ensure that 175 000 matric students achieve university exemption passes by 2014, but Zuma steered clear of setting a target for the pass rate.
Pupils in grades three, six and nine will write literacy and numeracy tests and a 60% pass rate is being aimed at by 2014.
Zuma acknowledged the disappointing outcome of Copenhagen climate-change summit in December 2009, but vowed that the country would work with international counterparts towards a legally binding strategy.
For the first time, Zuma used his platform to announce the national health insurance (NHI) system but declined to answer the pressing questions of how it would work.
‘We will also continue preparations for the establishment of a national health insurance system,” was all he would divulge.
The government had previously promised the eradication of informal settlements by 2014, but now Zuma promised that by 2014, 500 000 households in informal settlements would have proper services and lend tenure. A fund of R1-billion would be used to ensure that those who are not poor enough for government subsidies but not rich enough to qualify for bank mortgages, would be helped.
He also promised to increase the number of police officers by 10% .
The success of land reform and agricultural programmes ‘will show in the increase in the number of small scale farmers that become economically viable”, but again he refrained from setting a target or deadline.
Zuma’s aim to have the same reconciliatory approach as Mandela also shone through.
‘Allow me to mention the role played by former president PW Botha. It was he who initiated the discussion about the possible release of political prisoners. President Botha worked with the former minister of justice, Kobie Coetzee [sic], who was in turn assisted by Dr Neil Barnard and Mr Mike Louw. They played a significant role in the process of leading the release of Madiba.”
Zuma also pledged to help revitalise the floundering New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the legacy project of his former political enemy, former president Thabo Mbeki.
Zuma’s message to South Africans is that good things come to those who wait, but only time will tell if South Africans are willing to wait until 2014.